Two major elections took place earlier this month. On June 7 general elections took place in Britain, the supposed birthplace of Parliamentary democracy. Tony Blair’s Labour party was returned to power for a second term by a ‘landslide’. Turnout was less than sixty percent, and fewer than a quarter of the electorate voted for Labour. Nonetheless, Labour won 413 of the 659 seats in Parliament. Democracy, the BBC intoned, had expressed the will of the British people once more.
The next day presidential elections took place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the eighth since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the 22nd national poll of one kind or another in 22 years. President Sayyid Mohammad Khatami, was returned to office for a second term. Turnout was nearly 80 percent, and 77 percent (more than 21 million) of votes cast were for Khatami. Despite the smooth and open running of the elections, the fact that so many Iranians took part, that Khatami is himself an alim, and that Islamic Iran is arguably the only Muslim country with genuine and effective electoral politics, the result was greeted in the West as a protest against Islamic rule and a demand for ‘democracy’.
Even ignoring the recent fiasco of the presidential elections in the US, these two elections, and the reactions to them, reveal much about Western attitudes to democracy. Although the rhetoric of democracy emphasises the sovereignty of the people, it is accepted that the mechanics of western democracy serve to place in power representatives of capitalist elites. The alienation of large numbers of young and poor people from politics is taken for granted. And yet, because of the sophisticated rituals of the democratic process, and the elaborate pretence of popular sovereignty, no one questions the holy cow of democracy.
During the same week democracy was also seen in action in Ireland: in a referendum, the Irish electorate rejected the country’s endorsement of the Treaty of Nice (an agreement for the enlargement of the European Union). The reaction of governments and the media, throughout Europe, was not that the Irish people had spoken, but that some way would have to be found to re-run the referendum, this time ensuring that the ‘right side’ won. So much indeed for popular sovereignty.
In the mean time, democracy remains a dominant feature of most political discourse in the Islamic movement. Debating forums such as the Political Islam Discussion List (PIDL) tend to get bogged down in debates between advocates of western-style democracy and opponents of democracy, who usually promote khilafah, and demand the rule of shari’ah, with little understanding of what these terms mean, or how political change can be achieved. The advocates of democracy tend to be smooth, articulate and intelligent, often academics in western universities, studying political science or contemporary history. Their opponents usually lack the democrats’ polish and debating skills, and their passion tends to cloud their judgement rather than informing it. Their instinctive rejection of democracy as a “kufr ideology” may be sound, but they are wholly unable to justify it in debate.
But the democrats’ debating skills should not disguise the reality that their perception is often no less clouded. In the June edition of Islam21, a monthly journal in London, one advocate of democracy writes: “How come that if a system was developed (such as democracy) which embodies fairness, is this not the very essence of Islam?” He goes on to say: “The democratic system of rule, as it has emerged in the modern world, is the best system of rule yet invented by man. It approaches the ideal Islamic system practised during the Khilafa Rashida.”
To be fair, this article was probably written before the British and Iranian elections and the Irish referendum; nonetheless, the naivety, in view of practical examples of democracy, is quite stunning. Nor is this naivety restricted to one Muslim; it is typical of western-influenced Muslim intellectuals. It suggests a total inability to see past the rhetoric and seeming idealism of Western political scientists and propagandists, to the harsh realities of the amoral oligarchies that the western democracies really are. The fact is that democracy has become a holy cow whose real nature western-influenced intellectuals simply cannot recognise.
‘Equality’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and people’s participation in public life, as demonstrated in Islamic Iran, must be sought not because they are ‘democratic’, but because they are Islamic.